Religion has nothing to do with science – and vice versa

Thanks to Alan’s comments for this link, where he say’s “Just found this story with which I agree.”:

Religion has nothing to do with science – and vice versa, by Francisco J. Ayala

Well, though I agree with some points, there are many specific ones with which I don’t agree, and I don’t agree with the general notion that Ayala makes.

Let’s start with this:

“On the other side, some people of faith believe that science conveys a materialistic view of the world that denies the existence of any reality outside the material world. Science, they think, is incompatible with their religious faith.”

and within that, this:

“denies the existence of any reality outside the material world.

First, that’s false. Many don’t deny it. They say there’s no evidence to show it. Why? Because we are material creatures. We have senses that detect the material world. We have a material brain that operates in the material realm. How the heck are we supposed to detect or otherwise see something that is non-material? Do the religious magically have access to a realm that all of science, including religious scientists, has been unable to detect in any way. Our instruments are designed especially to extend the scale of human experience – but nowhere, never, has there been evidence of supernatural forces. Everything that has been discovered has fallen within the bounds of natural laws.

“If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters.” – Only to the extent that the religious want this to be the case, along with the odd atheist exception, such as Stephen Jay Gould, who just wanted to let us all get on.

“The scope of science is the world of nature: the reality that is observed, directly or indirectly, by our senses. Science advances explanations about the natural world, explanations that are accepted or rejected by observation and experiment.” – This bit is right.

“Outside the world of nature, however, science has no authority, no statements to make, no business whatsoever taking one position or another.” – This bit is right too. But what the religious don’t get is that it applies to them too! Science uses reason and the senses – exactly the same faculties available to the religious. There is nothing the religious can get at that scientists can’t. In fact it’s the other way round. Science has given us access to the brain – albeit we’re still in the early stages – so that there are many examples of the brain doing weird things that one particular example, experiencing God, is really no big deal. We have no examples of anything that confirms that an experience of God is actually that and not some trick of the brain.

“Science has nothing decisive to say about values, whether economic, aesthetic or moral” – Simply not true. Science has plenty to say about all these.

“…nothing to say about the meaning of life or its purpose.” – Simply not true. Results of science suggest that there is no purpose or meaning in the sense that religion would like there to be.

“Science has nothing to say, either, about religious beliefs, except…” – No exceptions. Science can say quite a lot about beliefs, and I’m sure will be saying more and more as the various branches of brain science expose more.

“People of faith need not be troubled that science is materialistic.” – Only if they want to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t have anything to say. Wishful thinking will not make science go away.

“The methods and scope of science remain within the world of matter.” – True. Same applies to you.

“It [science] cannot make assertions beyond that world.” – And neither can you or anyone religious. Well, not quite true. You can make the assertions – and often do, but based on nothing at all.

“Science transcends cultural, political and religious beliefs because it has nothing to say about these subjects.” – Warning! Pseudo-intellectual postmodern claim! What the hell does it mean by ‘transcends’ in this statement? The word is usually the reserve of the religious, to say what they know of is above or beyond, bigger and better (e.g. Lesley’s Rollins video). The word is sometimes used to mean ‘encompasses’, as in Venn diagrams when one encompasses another: the outer includes all that’s in the inner but ‘transcends’ it by encompassing more than is in the inner.

“That science is not constrained by cultural or religious differences is one of its great virtues.” – True. It can address anything the human mind and senses can address, because it is an instrument that expands the human mind and senses. If science can’t get at it then we can’t.

“Some scientists deny that there can be valid knowledge about values or about the meaning and purpose of the world and of human life.” – This is true, but curiously this isn’t the point he then goes on to describe with regard to Dawkins. He’s confusing the point about what we have access to, what we can know, which this statement is about, with some things that we actually do have ideas about: the denying of purpose (in the religious sense) (not values – Dawkins isn’t denying that)

“There is a monumental contradiction in these assertions. If its commitment to naturalism does not allow science to derive values, meaning or purposes from scientific knowledge, it surely does not allow it, either, to deny their existence.” – This totally misunderstands the point. The point is that science shows there is no inherent purpose in the universe, not even the characteristics that give rise to us (essentially issues regarding Entropy – it all just happens as the universe ‘winds down’, to give a simple expression). This in no way prevents us, as organisms with brains that evaluate our surroundings and our selves (echoes of the free will issues here), and to derive values and purpose for ourselves, based on non-teleological evolutionary directives.

“In its publication Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, the US National Academy of Sciences emphatically asserts that religion and science answer different questions about the world…” – And this is supposed to tell us what? With all the kerfuffle in the US about religion, evolution, ID’s ‘teach the controversy’, etc., this is just a conciliatory nod to the religious that evolution won’t step on their toes if they don’t step on science’s. other than that, the specific issue of evolution doesn’t cross swords with liberal religion, since liberal religion accepts evolution and evolution doesn’t address ultimate origins; but it does very specifically deny Creationism’s young Earth claims.

“People of faith should stand in awe of the wondrous achievements of science. But they should not be troubled that science may deny their religious beliefs.” – Of course they should. Science, like any common sense approach to life, demands that we have evidence for what we are being told – otherwise you will be conned all to easily, by email scammers for one. The fact that these scams succeed is a testament to the gullibility of the human brain when left to it’s own devices. Belief in religion is another.

“Religion concerns the meaning and purpose of the world and human life” – for all it tries to do that, for all it makes claims, it has nothing to back that up. basically, even when you dress up liberal religion in postmodern ‘opinion’ truths, it says nothing more than, “What’s our purpose? Go is our purpose, or gives us our purpose, or demands our purpose, or loves us so we have the purpose to be loved, …”, and on and on with all sorts of unsubstantiated drivel that basically means they don’t know either, but they’ll have damned good fun making something up.

“[Religion concerns] the proper relation of people to their Creator and to each other” – Whoa! Hold on. “The proper relation of the people to the creator” – More postmodern bollocks. Without any evidence of a creator, or without the capacity to access the creator in order to establish there is a relation (remember, we are material beings. We don’t have access to the supernatural) Note how this grammatically reasonable but nonsensical sentence is given some semblance of meaning, “make sure we include something human, our relation to each other, just to give this nonsense some grounding in reality.”

“[Religion concerns] the moral values that inspire and govern their lives.” – Only because the religious make that claim, and then espouse morality as if they are the only ones with access to it.

“Science, on the other hand, concerns the processes that account for the natural world: how the planets move, the composition of matter and the atmosphere, the origin and function of organisms.” – And, one of these concerns is the workings of the human brain: neuroscience and evolution and anthropology suggest that internal personal ‘religious experiences’ are just brain anomalies, even if within normal bounds of variation; psychology and sociology and anthropology and evolution all suggest that external religious experiences and organisations are cultural memes that satisfied some requirement in the past.

“Religion has nothing definitive to say about …” – Well, about anything really. Religion is made-up stuff.

“According to Augustine, the great theologian of the early Christian church…” – And therein lies another problem. Augustine and other theologians concerned themselves with explaining what pertains once a belief in God is given. This puts anything else they have to say into doubt.

“Successful as it is, however, a scientific view of the world is hopelessly incomplete.” – Incomplete, yes, of course. It’s work in progress. Humans first appeared about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago – and this might be the point when we really began to use our brains, but the details are unclear. The first human markings on pottery go back about 5500 years. What we call science now had it’s base in Greek thought, but really took off just over a thousand years ago – about 1% – 2% of human existence? So, yes, we are still in our scientific infancy. We have no real conception of what science will be telling us about the brain, about religious belief, in another thousand years.

Because religion has been around for a while and science is so young, the religious seem to have the conceited view that theology has and continues to have access to great insights into the makings of the universe. But given that most of our current religious systems are not much different that those of two thousand years ago, give or take a bit of theological jiggery-pokery in the middle ages, I don’t see that religion has had anything to offer.

“Scientific knowledge may enrich aesthetic and moral perceptions and illuminate the significance of life and the world, but these matters are outside the realm of science.”No they are not, because that would put them outside the realm of human beings, when it’s human beings that create both science (the process) and these perceptions (in our brains).

Ayala made some similar statements at the Buckingham Palace reception where he received his Templeton Foundation prize. Probably is best statement was this:

“Properly they cannot be in contradiction because they deal in different subjects. They are like two windows through which we look at the world; the world is one and the same, but what we see is different,…”

My response to that is that they could be. If religion stuck to it’s organisational and pastoral care roles then it has a lot to contribute to human affairs. It differs from science in this respect in that science is best at finding things out, telling us how the world is – even though through understanding the brain and human social issues it can contribute data to be used by religious organisations. This also seems in accord with what Alan has said on his blog – he sees the pragmatic value in religion, what it can do for us.

But if religion wants to tell us how or who created the universe, what interaction the personal brain is having with as yet unknown agents (i.e. God), then these are real questions of science. Cosmology and particle physics tells us much more about how the universe actually is, and as much as we can yet know about how it began, and no amount of theological navel gazing is going to improve on that. The branches of brain science are examining how the brain works, and how it doesn’t, how it fools itself, how gullible it is, and no amount of theological navel gazing and introspection is going to tell us anything better.

The religious need to move on. I haven’t read anything by some of the more liberally religious, such as Richard Holloway, recommended to me by Lesley. Though science can’t yet answer many of our questions about our origins and our interactions with internal agents, neither can religion, and science is in the best position to get those answers, eventually.

The Populode of the Musicolly

Terry Sanderson’s Guardian article discusses the issue of theological language, which I’ve been trying to interpret without success: Theology – truly a naked emperor (h/t

First things first, it helps if you know what theology is about…

“What is theology? I think one of the best definitions was given by the sci-fi writer Robert A Heinlein:”

Heinlin, “Theology … is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn’t there. Theologians can persuade themselves of anything.”

Down to business, the language…

“They can twist the language, invert the meaning of words, tie themselves into logical knots and then get admired for it.”

“Take Rowan Williams, for example, who is lauded far and wide for the vastness of his theological knowledge. He is said to have a brain the size of Jupiter because he can produce convoluted writing that nobody with their feet in reality can comprehend. And because no one can fathom it, it must be very important, right?”

Sanderson treats us to a few words from Williams…

Williams, “The word of God is not bound. God speaks, and the world is made; God speaks and the world is remade by the word incarnate. And our human speaking struggles to keep up. We need, not human words that will decisively capture what the word of God has done and is doing, but words that will show us how much time we have to take in fathoming this reality, helping us turn and move and see, from what may be infinitesimally different perspectives, the patterns of light and shadow in a world where the word’s light has been made manifest. It is no accident that the gospel which most unequivocally identifies Jesus as the word made flesh is the gospel most characterised by this same circling, hovering, recapitulatory style, as if nothing in human language could ever be a ‘last’ word.”

“But when he has reached the very depths of his profundity what does it amount to? I can do no better than HL Mencken, who said:”

Menken, “For centuries, theologians have been explaining the unknowable in terms of the-not-worth-knowing.”

“Theology is an excuse for grown men to spend their lives trying to convince themselves, and others, that ridiculous fairy tales are true.”

And Sanderson’s view of TV evangelists…

“Five minutes after tuning in to such a session, you will begin to wonder whether you’ve had one of those strokes that make your native language incomprehensible to you. You recognise individual words as English, but they have no meaning. … This is theology.”

“Theology is a completely and utterly useless pursuit. It is self-indulgence of the first order.”

Sanderson finishes by treating us to a use of language that is intentionally obscure, yet far clearer and easier to follow that the clip from Rowan Williams…

“If you wish to hear a really brilliant theologian at work, here’s a great one.”

Good Books and Pervasive Ideas

I watched Michael Mosley’s BBC Story Of Science (Episode 5) yesterday (get it while you can).

There were two messages I took from the programme, mainly because of the debates I’ve been having over on the blogs of Lesley and Alan. Those messages are:

  • The fallibility of the good books

  • The power and pervasiveness of science

Good/Bad Books

The story starts with Galen, the Roman physician and philosopher who mad remarkable progress in understanding the human body, its structure and it’s processes. He created what became the ‘good book’ of anatomy and physiology. This work was revered and studied for over a thousand years and became the ‘Bible’ of medicine.

The analogy with the Bible I want to draw out is the conviction with which its anatomy was held to be a true representation of the human body. The flaw lay in the fact that it was based on animal dissections. So despite it’s value it contained many inaccuracies that were propagated from teacher to student for centuries. But because of the authority of Galen’s book, and that of the teachers, the mistakes were believed to be truths.

Galen wasn’t challenged and further significant progress wasn’t made until Andreas Vesalius at University of Padua. Because the university wasn’t affiliated with the church the dissections of the human body, of criminals, as opposed to animal, at last began to give up its detailed secrets. Another break with tradition was that Vesalius got stuck in and found out for himself – where traditionally the teacher would have guided the demonstrator to do the dissecting by reading from Galen, describing, prescribing, what would be found, rather than what was found by the demonstrator, and all the students would nod and agree, they would bow to the authorities of the teacher and Galen’s good book.

Only when traditional boundaries and authorities were challenged would the good book’s flaws be exposed, and only when reality was dissected was the truth discovered. This should be a lesson for the religious. But sadly, for many, the old authority still rules. Even for the liberal Christian the Bible holds sway and influences their interpretations of what are personal experiences. That’s why there is no reasonable response to the charge that one good book, the Bible, is no better, no more true, that any other good book, such as the Quran. It’s all a matter of faith.

The Pervasive View of Science

The other message from the programme is one I’ve been trying to express in several ways. That is that science is not a completely different way of looking at the world.

It isn’t a new World View against which traditional Holy views must be rallied. It’s the same view we’ve always had. Science is, if anything, just a process of looking at the world more rigorously, in more detail and with finer precision, and with greater reliability.

Science does no more than account for and compensate for our own limitations, which it does through its methods for devising experiments and observational techniques, which are repeated by different people at different times in different places to rule out any local or biased influences, using instruments that extend the range of our natural senses.

This isn’t a magic against which we should be fighting. It isn’t telling us anything that is unbelievable. In fact quite the opposite, because it raises our confidence that what it’s telling us is true, increasing our trust in what it is showing us. We trust science every time we go under the surgeon’s knife and the anaesthetist gases; every time we take a trip in a plane; every time we type a blog post; every time we use a phone. We know science is the best use of the only tools we have of accessing knowledge: our reason and senses.

There is no other World View to be had that isn’t make-believe. If we can’t reason about it and sense it then we don’t know much about it – effectively nothing at all. If we can’t apply science to it, from our basic reason and senses to any of the specific methods that make up the scientific method, then what can we know about it? We have nothing else! Everything else that we make up just in our minds is fantasy. Our ideas, concepts, our nightmares, dreams, our monsters, goblins, unicorns, witches and gods – they are all fantasy; unless we can back them up, corroborate them, with our reason and senses. And the more strange our ideas the more confirmation we need before we should believe them.

If you believe you communicate with God; if there is an inner experience that is so convincing that you really believe it, if you have faith in it, I can’t offer more than say that the human brain sees and hears plenty of things that aren’t there, and we all know that this is the case. If you can’t review these examples and see that this might apply to you in some way, then what more can I do? If you think the vague paradoxical nonsensical irrational mystique of religious language is offering you an explanation for what you can’t otherwise demonstrate to be true, if you are prepared to be bamboozled into your faith, then I think you’re stuck with that.

Only the sceptical application of our reason and senses, most rigorously at work in science, will be able to set you free from the strangle hold of tradition. This isn’t some other way of knowing; there is no other way of knowing.

Free Will

The concept ‘free-will’ can be considered as one model for how the human organism operates in its outer environment. But this doesn’t show that free-will is not part of the causal framework in which the organism operates. A specific “act of free-will” is simply a model we use to describe what is still basically a causal physical response. It’s the notion of free-will as something independent of all the physical processes that all physicalists are disputing, and in this sense I think autonomous-free-will can be described as an illusion, or at best as a conceptual model.

I say free-will is a ‘model’ of response because thinking in terms of models allows us to accept a level of abstract detachment. We regularly use models for systems – conceptual ideas that represent something on a manageable arbitrary level. We do this probably because we have to – it’s how our brains manage external perceptions as patterns and memories, one of those perceptions being the self, another, free-will, being a model of how that self responds. It may be natural for the organism itself to feel that free-will is something the organism does actively and autonomously simply because of the proximity and complexity of how an act of free-will comes about.

If you accept causality and the level of physicalism that has been discussed here, then I don’t see how free-will in its religious and autonomous senses has any meaning. And without free-will what is religion, other than one more conceptual abstraction of the physical environment of the organism. All religious ideas come to us through reading, listening and seeing – all part of physical environment acting on the organism as a whole, and through layers down to the brain; the brain that already has a history and hence existing interconnections and chemistry that is amenable to these inputs, or not. Even an internally occurring “sign”, a revelation, can be explained as a religious event only in the context of pre-existing knowledge about religion.

For any individual, how does their brain respond to a religious idea (or any input)? As an excited, inhibited, or conditioned response (utilising yet another model of behaviour)? Probably in some complex combination. The emergent response to a religious idea may be whatever the organism’s brain does internally, plus how that operates on the outer organism. So a theist response might be to offer a supportive argument. This particular organism (me) might respond with a criticism. The fact that the response may be complex does not detract from the fact that it came about from a complex interaction of components within the organism, albeit with externally sourced inputs, many of which have been consolidated over time. We call that a free-will response, using the free-will model. But that’s all it is – it is a caused response (still assuming causality).

In this context the only difference between a person performing an act out of ‘free-will’ and one who has been induced into performing the act, say through hypnosis, is that the most influential and most recent causal events that preceded the act came from within the organism for the former, but from outside the organism for the latter.

One of the main objections to physicalist non-autonomous free-will comes about because it’s difficult for some to accept this point of view – but this in itself is a response, to prior physical activity. When you “feel” free-will must be real, that feeling itself is merely a response with a physical base.

The next paragraph is long winded because I’ve gone out the way to put it in terms of a non-agent mechanical reaction. We’re not used to doing this. It’s possible our natural language that describes us as agents that interact is a convenience, and efficiency that has evolved naturally, just as we naturally and conveniently attribute agency and free will to inanimate objects sometimes.

Other objections are associated with justice and culpability. You might ask me, “How can you justify locking up that ‘criminal’ organism, when on your model he didn’t ‘willfully’ carry out the crime?” My response would be, “Well, this organism’s response is to do just that.” All organisms tend to avoid self harm, and through evolved empathetic responses we generally try to avoid harm to others. That particular criminal organism caused harm, albeit indirectly and in a non-autonomous free-will caused sense, so the complex collective socially constructed response of this set of organisms, this social group, is to prevent further harm by locking up that criminal organism. The notion that this sequence of events might act as sufficient causal input to that criminal organism that in time it’s caused actions might be to no longer cause harm to others, is also compatible. Similarly, the desire for retribution can be considered as another physical response. The complexity of these interactions is not evidence against physicalism.

A physicalist view of free-will as an illusion or a model does not entail the collapse of society and morality. It may even inform us better than some of the many arbitrary and conflicting reasonings of the various religions.

Irrational Science Denial

TED Video: The danger of science denial:

People wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you can’t set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And, listen, everyone’s entitled to their opinion; they’re even entitled to their opinion about progress, but you know what you’re not entitled to? You’re not entitled to your own facts. Sorry, you’re not.

There are questions and problems with the people we used to believe were always right. So be skeptical. Ask questions, demand proof, demand evidence. Don’t take anything for granted. But here’s the thing: When you get proof, you need to accept the proof, and we’re not that good at doing that.

Now, we love to wrap ourselves in lies. We love to do it. Everyone take their vitamins this morning? Echinacea, a little antioxidant to get you going. I know you did because half of Americans do every day. They take the stuff, and they take alternative medicines, and it doesn’t matter how often we find out that they’re useless. The data says it all the time. They darken your urine. They almost never do more than that.

Well, I think I understand, we hate big pharma. … So we run away from it, and where do we run? We leap into the arms of big placebo. … But, you know, it’s really a serious thing because this stuff is crap…

And you know what? When I say this stuff, people scream at me, and they say, “What do you care? Let people do what they want to do. it makes them feel good.” And you know what? You’re wrong. Because I don’t care if it’s the secretary of H.H.S. who’s saying, “Hmm, I’m not going to take the evidence of my experts on mammograms,” or some cancer quack who wants to treat his patient with coffee enemas. When you start down the road where belief and magic replace evidence and science, you end up in a place you don’t want to be. You end up in Thabo Mbeki South Africa. He killed 400,000 of his people by insisting that beetroot garlic and lemon oil were much more effective than the antiretroviral drugs we know can slow the course of AIDS.

Watch for more.

Truth Matters

A liberal believer may claim that their faith is benign. They want to get on with their own faith, want to do good, want to enjoy the community and other perceived benefits of their faith. It may be a personal faith, where they at least doubt some of the contents of scripture. If challenged about the evidence that supports their faith they might debate some of the details, but in the end both sides have to acknowledge that for many believers, the faith, the belief, in the end need not be justified by rational argument. Such a benign faith is distinguished from ‘fundamental’ faith, in that there are elements of rationality to it. An atheist might agree with such a person in many ways about what should constitute a moral society, for example. Though the atheist might attribute his moral code to evolutionary and cultural developments, the liberal believer might attribute theirs more to God, even if there is some agreement on the role of evolution and culture.

Given this view that it is personal and benign, a question might arise, “Does it matter?” Or, “What’s it to the atheist what I believe or not?”, Or, “What harm is it doing?”. Or, “Given all the good that religion does, provided it’s a benign religion that isn’t ‘fundamentalist’, doesn’t do harm, what’s the problem?”

For me it’s the truth that matters, and the only route to truth we have as far as I can tell is reason and the evidence of science.

One problem as I see it for any benign faith is that it’s a mix of reason, evidence and faith. The reason helps such a believer to dismiss all the nasty and down right obvious crazy stuff, but it stops short with the basic belief in a God of some sort. To give up on reason and evidence at that point seems to have negated much of the benefit put in it up front. But it’s not always obvious where the reason ends and the faith begins. The reason melds seamlessly into confusion as religious reasons merges into obscure religious language.

Confusion and obfuscation are arguably the best way to go. Obfuscation is legal, it’s easy, there’s always an abundant supply and it often does the trick. The more unclear it is exactly what one is arguing, the more trouble one’s opponents will have in refuting one’s claims. [1]

It’s also arguable that obfuscation is what postmodernism is all about. Clouds of squid ink in the form of jargon, mathematical equations whose relevance is obscure, peacock displays of name-dropping, misappropriation and misapplication of scientific theories are often seen as postmodernist ‘discourse’. Nietzsche, Heidegger, Heisenberg, Einstein, Gödel, Wittgenstein are hauled in and cited as saying things they didn’t say – sometimes as saying exactly the opposite of what they said. … The tactic doesn’t work with people who actually know something of Einstein, Heisenberg or Gödel – but what of it? How many people is that? And it does work with many who don’t. [1]

I’m not out to criticise the ignorant simply for being ignorant. None of us has the capacity to know all that has been discovered – we may be limited by time, access, interest or intelligence. The problem is that those making great claims for their world view that use these references should really check with those that have a better understanding before jumping straight in and acquiring this knowledge in the construction of their pseudo-knowledge.

The confusion of course raises it’s own questions for the believers.

Asking unanswerable questions is an inconclusive but useful tactic. … “But why did all this happen? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there Mind? Why is there order? … The fact that no one can answer such questions is taken by the pure of heart and limpid of mind to entail divine explanation. The fact that such explanation allows the questions to be asked all over again seems not to trouble the divinely inclined. [1]

i.e. God answers nothing.

Of course if the questions are allowed to continue, the contortions of explanation become greater and greater, more obscure language is employed. It is more important that the faith is maintained, at the expense of clarity and reason.

In fact, the contortions are a giveaway not only that the explanation is not the right one, but that something is badly wrong with the method of generating the explanation, that things are back to front, that the enquirer has started, not with a desire to produce an explanation, but with the desire to produce a particular explanation, or a particular kind of explanation. [1]

What is necessary to get at truth?

What should trump what? Should rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference trump human needs, desires, fears, hopes? Or should our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and visions be allowed to shape our decisions about what constitutes good evidence, what criteria determine whether an explanation is supported by evidence or not, what is admissible and what isn’t? [1]

How much do we want the truth?

The truth is important to us, but so are our needs and desires and hopes and fears. Without them we wouldn’t even recognise ourselves. Without them, we think, we would merely be something like an adding machine. An adding machine can get at the truth, given the right input, but it doesn’t care. We want the truth but we also want to care – wanting the truth is indeed inseparable from caring. We want it, we care about it, it matters, and so do various other things we want and care about, some of which are threatened by the truth. … But we have to choose. … If we’ve never bothered to decide that truth matters, and that it shouldn’t be subject to our wishes – that, in short, wishful thinking is bad thinking – then we are likely to be far less aware of the tension. We simply allow ourselves, without much worry or reflection, to assume that the way humans want the world to be is the way the world is, more or less by definition – and endemic confusion and muddle is the result. [1]

The muddle and confusion is so obvious in the Alice in Wonderland nonsense of much religious language – the desire to believe in the impossible (or at least un-evidenced) things manufactures incomprehensible language about incomprehensible beings, agents that interact yet don’t exist, that we can’t know of yet we know what they want from us.

Religion and related modes of thinking such as New Age, Wicca, paganism, the vaguely named ‘spirituality’, are where this outcome is most obvious. Public discourse features talk of God-shaped holes, of a deep human need for ‘faith’, of the longing of transcendence, of the despair and cosmic loneliness that results when God is doubted, and the like … without apparently stopping to notice that there may be reasons to prefer true beliefs rather than false ones. [1]

What reasons? There are many. One is truth is something of an all-or-nothing proposition. It is intimately related to concepts such as consistency, thoroughness, universal applicability, and the like. If one decides that truth doesn’t matter in one area what is to prevent one deciding it doesn’t matter in any, in all? [1]

It’s surely the nature of truth that it has to be all of a piece. It’s norms have to apply here as well as there, if they are to apply at all. That is why relativism about truth is always self-undermining. If we say, ‘there is no truth, truth is an illusion, a myth, a construct, a mystification’ then that statement is not true – so there is truth then. [1]

Does it matter that we kid ourselves?

Our internal private thoughts might not matter at all. … But how we influence each other, how we teach – by writing, by journalism, by talking on the radio, on platforms, in churches, in mosques, in classrooms – it does matter. If we are going to influence people, it’s important we get it right. [1]

This is crucial as far as I can see. There’s enough fog, lack of clarity, confusion, in transcribing thoughts from one mind to another as it is. The last thing we need is the obfuscation of falsehoods. But it doesn’t have to be lies. There doesn’t need to be intentional dishonestly. The transmission of unsupported ideas, non-truths, non-facts, sold as truths, or alternative truths is an easily acquired skill.

It might seem like there are good reasons to hide from truth. When it’s trivial, when it’s short term, then maybe we can excuse it. It might be a useful coping mechanism that allows us to avert pain, to concentrate on work, to withdraw from anger. But this isn’t to deny the truth, it’s just to postpone it, compartmentalise it, to push attention to one side. But this shouldn’t become the rule, if we want to avoid living outside of reality. Truth isn’t subject to our whims, our wishful thinking. But it’s possible to live that way if we get into the habit.

If we minimize true facts that we dislike too often, we may lose sight of the fact that it is our reaction and degree of attention that is subject to our wills, and start to think that the facts themselves are subject to our wills. But on the whole they’re not. [1]

Religious scholarship, theology, seems to me to be worst of the search for the answers. What kind of search for truth is it, when the truth is declared before the search begins, when search is directed at affirming what is already believed to be the truth? This isn’t the discovery of truth; it’s rationalising away the evidence to affirm the truth. Religion is often explained as a journey of discovery. This is the poorest form of journey of discovery; it’s a journey through the front door that ends on the doorstep, where the ‘truth’ is already packaged up neatly into a three letter word, God. The only remaining work to do is to go back inside and rationalise about how this might be, or what it might mean, or how it can be applied to persuade people to conform to it. No evidence is required; in fact evidence has been a nuisance for religion from the start. As soon as someone asked, “How do you know that?”, religion was on the defensive.

Religion is a big part of our lives, even if we are non-believers, because it is so ingrained in our history. But religion is supposed to be an honest affair isn’t it? Don’t we have enough to contend with?

There are fields where indifference to truth is no handicap – advertising, PR, fashion, lobbying, marketing, entertainment. In fact there are whole large, well paid, high status areas of the economy where truth-scepticism, wishful thinking, fantasy, suspension of disbelief, deletion of the boundary between dreams and reality, are not only not a handicap, but essential to the enterprise. … We need our dreams and stories, our imaginaries. They are good for us. We need the cognitive rest from confronting reality all day, we need to be able to imagine alternatives, we need the pleasure of fantasy. But we also need to hang on to our awareness of the difference between dreams and reality. [1]

The more we realise both our fallibilities at knowing, and the more we realise that our only route to knowledge is through our fallible reason and senses, and the more we realise that the best we can do is repeat and repeat, thrash out what we think we know, hammer it into submission to our inquiry, the more religion, mysticism and other ‘ways of knowing’ has to retreat into the obscurity of mystical language.

Given religions penchant for morality, why isn’t it the most rigorous of our philosophies? How wrong can we be in our search for alternative realities, alternative truths? It’s not all religion’s fault, though religion is often happy to jump on the bandwagon of unreason.

There is a profound irony in the situation – in postmodernist epistemic relativism. It is thought to be, and often touted as, emancipatory. It is supposed to set us all free: free from all those coercive repressive restrictive hegemonic totalizing old ideas. From white male western reason and science, from the requirement to heed the boundary between science and pseudo science, from the need to offer genuine evidence for our versions of history, from scholars who point out we have our facts wrong. … Take away reasoned argument and the requirement for reference to evidence – by discrediting them via deconstruction and rhetoric, via scare quotes and mocking capital letters, and what can be left other than force of one kind or another? … This is emancipatory? Not in our view. It is not emancipatory because it helps emotive rhetoric to prevail over reason and evidence, which means it helps falsehood prevail over truth. [1]

Even for benign religion? Well, precisely the same mechanisms, the same poor reasoning, the emotive language, the same style of faith, is used to justify a liberal believer’s opinion as is used to justify a fundamentalist terrorist’s opinion. The subsuming of reason and science to faith is the same in both cases. If you have faith in a benign God, from what stance to you argue against faith in a vengeful God? No matter how much you think you might reason it will do you no good, because you have already abandoned reason yourself – it’s clear to all concerned that any reason you apply is only a token gesture, because to you your core is faith, not reason.

So, why does truth matter? It’s hard figuring out what ‘truth’ is and how to get at it. We have only limited means at our disposal. I’d rather all our efforts go into finding the truth for what it is, not inventing ‘truth’ for which there’s no evidence, no matter how cosy it makes us feel, no matter what the short term pragmatic value.

Why Truth Matters – Ophelia Benson, Jeremy Stangroom

Dan Dennet’s AAI 2009 Talk

This is a reponse to comments on Lesly’s post on Rollins.

In a comment there I posted a video by Dan Dennett to which Lesley responded. My response in turn is a bit too long for a comments section, so here is is…

Hi lesley,

I’ll cover each of your specific points, starting with this one…

“he is called a philosopher, but he adds practically nothing”

Reverse engineering – seeing how things fail in order to understand them. Standard scientific process, used in his case in understanding the brain, psychology, etc. Dennett does know a lot about how the brain works, and how it fails to work. And much of this is about how it fails to work when applied to religious belief.

There is the assumption in the religious community that theologians who think about human behaviour in the context of a religious belief have a real grasp of the human condition, as if they have an insight that religious thought and belief brings to their understanding. Dennett’s purpose here is to point out that they don’t. Rollins and Bell are prime examples of believers who maybe don’t appreciate how their stories and their methods are pure snake oil salesmen tricks. Dennett probably finds it hard to believe that many serious intelligent theologians really believe some of the stuff they come out with; and added to that the experiences he’s had with religious believers you yourself might classify as ‘nutters’, simply because their belief is more literal than yours; then this is why Dennett is appears not to address your position on many of the points he makes.

The part of the video that’s about non-believing preachers is a genuine attempt to understand what is happening. It’s a real psychological investigation. As someone interested in psychology I assume you can appreciate this. Even in this small initial study he classifies them as three liberals and three literals – so already he’s naturally covering a range of beliefs.

“why does everything always revolve around the most extreme form of American evangelicalism?”

First, because that’s a pretty prominent group he encounters, so no surprise their views are tackled most often.

Second extreme evangelism covers some of the same issues raised by the great variety of faith, so no surprise that more literalist views are sometimes tackled.

Dennett’s talk was prior to the study. This paper,, outlines the study. If you think it’s only about ‘nutters’, it isn’t.

Some of the clergy interviewed express very similar beliefs to your own. Just because all the examples don’t match your own doesn’t invalidate them.

“at college… there was no sense of not believing what we were taught because it challenged preconceived ideas”

This may have been your experience, but if you read the experiences of those interviewed you’ll see it’s not always like that.

“as far as I know vicars are among the happiest and most satisfied people, and they live longest too.”

That may be the case for many who get through. But on your own blog there are often comments about struggles with faith, so theologians are not always among the happiest and satisfied.

But I don’t think anything controversial has been said that can’t be backed up. Much of what Dennett covers comes from religious people who have rejected faith because they have seen problems with it.

Having said that…

“Prior to that I was in a certain mindset, where I didn’t really question, I was too scared to question, and those who did question were looked on as apostate.” – from your Hotel California post.

“There was so much to scared of, top on the list was Liberal Theology which was the slippery slope to unbelief”

“So we all huddled together in the Hotel California for security, we sounded the same, we acted the same, we looked the same. We looked to the Bible to save us from false prophets and various perceived evils.”

“In this stage, our former views of God are radically challenged. The disruption can be so great that we feel like we are losing our faith or betraying loyalties.” – From stage 4 of The Critical Journey, as quoted in your Abyss post.

“Our aversion to stage 4 is increased because of the very real dangers that accompany this stage. ‘Sometimes people drop off the journey totally at this point. Overwhelmed by pain or crises in our lives, we absolutely cut ourselves off from God’.” – Ditto.

These are all from your experience, and they all sound so much like the quotes from the clergy that took part in the study:

Click to access EP08122150.pdf

“regularly uses the words subversive, willful, cunning, trick, liars etc.”

“He suggests that we learn spin when interpreting the Bible. Not true.”

He’s not implying it’s that open, or necessarily intentional, “There isn’t a course [at seminary college] called how to put a spin. It’s taught by example….They’re sort of the truth.” – And this is the point he is making. It’s the mode of religious language that’s deceptive.

In the examples he cites it’s hard not to see it that way. Again, this might not match your experience, or how you see it.

But much of the work of Bell and Rollins for example does sound like the willful misuse of terms; there is trickery in the language and production that is intended to persuade.

Some of the clergy in the study have said they weren’t telling the whole story:

“I knew I’m not going to make it in a conventional church. I didn’t believe the conventional things, even then. I mean, sure, I’m studying theology with Paul Tillich — and Bultmann who says we can’t know much about Jesus, and Paul Tillich’s philosophical stuff about ‘God is the ground of being’. I’m not going to go into a church and talk like this; I’m not going to, I’m not going to – I did not believe the traditional things even then.”

In the cases he cites of those clergy who have to effectively misrepresent to hide their own degree of disagreement with the doctrine, then it is applying spin. And there’s no way that some of the works he cites by religious authors, such as Spong is not spin.

“He suggests that those who lose their faith at college ‘get out while the going is good’… as far as I know vicars are among the happiest and most satisfied people, and they live longest too. What does he mean?”

He’s referring to those like the ones in the study. Read the quotes.

Click to access EP08122150.pdf

It also ties in with this:

“In this stage, our former views of God are radically challenged. The disruption can be so great that we feel like we are losing our faith or betraying loyalties.” – From stage 4 of The Critical Journey, as quoted in your Abyss post.

“He suggests that theology is to answer ‘awkward questions’.. not true.”

But that’s the history of theology, and it’s been going on for centuries, trying to address the awkward questions. This is what Augustine, Aquinas etc. did, putting so much effort into building a more robust doctrine.

You often comment on versions of the faith that you don’t agree with, and you’ve said yourself that much of what you read is disagreeable. Dennett simply finds it all disagreeable.

“He suggests that we try to stop people having inquiring minds.. not true.”

we? – not you. The hierarchy, the establishment of the church.

You’ve said yourself that the there’s a resistance to inquiry that you feel you struggle against yourself.

“And he says that either you believe God has existence or you are an atheist.. why?”

Because to believe in God as expressed by Christians is to believe in an agent. We have no experience of agents that do not have existence.

We can conceptualise God as an agent, just as we can conceptualise pink elephants and unicorns. But you really want to say God IS, and yet claim he does not exist, then you are reducing him to a mere concept, not an actual God.

In this sense God can be a metaphor for something – but then Dennett says, in that case he too can believe in that God, because he too believes in metaphors, he knows what they are.

This is what the ‘History of God’ reference was about. Many religious explanations describe the history of the religion – which is fine, because religion does have a history.

But in saying it’s a history of God implies that there is a God to have a history about, when really it’s a history of the concept of God, not of God.

Dennett says that he too believes in the ‘concept of God’, i.e. he understands what concepts are, and he gets what this specific concept is. He just doesn’t believe in the content of that concept – i.e. God.

This is related to the Use-Mention Error – next.

” ‘History of God’ … And he relates God to the Easter Bunny..”

First, the Easter Bunny, unicorns, flying spaghetti monster, Russell’s teapot, or God, are all examples used to demonstrate the idea that having a concept of something isn’t the same as that something actually being real. All the inexplicable attributes of God, his incomprehensibility, can all be applied to these other examples, but it doesn’t make them any more true. The argument here is about the similarities with the type of claim being made, and not actually equating God to an Easter Bunny.

The example he uses for his deepism is lousy ‘Love is just a word’” – This is to do with the common use-mention error, which he explains clearly. Here’s some detail on it:

This is what it means:

And here:

The specific History of God error:

It’s a point I’ve picked up on in Bell and Rollins. It’s a way of conflating ideas, where the obvious and literal meaning of the sentence is easy for the brain to accept, and primes the brain for the more profound intention, even though the more profound intentional interpretation doesn’t actually make any sense as a sentence.

So, (as I commented on your Rollins post) Rollins (and Bell) provide many examples of what Dennett calls a ‘Deepity’:

– A proposition that seems to be profound because it is logically ill-formed.

– It has (at least) two meanings, and balances precariously between them.

– On one reading it is true but trivial.

– On the other reading it’s false, but would be earth-shattering if true.

And it’s the failure to recognise the U-M error that allows these double readings to be conflated.

When this usage is mixed in with lots of other emotive sentences and vague notions they’re easy to just absorb as if they have meaning. Dennett expresses something like, “Well, sounds okay, but?….well, I suppose I get it…” With repeated exposure this sort of stuff takes on a life of its own as if it actually means something.

Whenever a theist is asked to explain the detail of what is meant, then the simple claim that it’s too deep, beyond our language to express, is what the rationalisation of the problem resorts to.

“I am honestly appalled…so sickeningly prejudiced…I am shocked that Richard Dawkins…you are better than this, I can’t believe you can stomach it…anything racist or anti-gay or politically obnoxious…I find it distasteful…it seemed at the level of the Sun newspaper to me…It is just appalling…If he said these things about black people you would be rightly outraged and liken his propaganda to Hitler…these vile things…I think that is similar to racists equating black people to apes…as unpleasant as him. He represents for me the worst sort of bigotry.”

I can only put this down to you being genuinely disturbed by it. Yes, he’s preaching to the converted and does use some humour, which if you’re on the receiving end could be considered puerile.

But your response raises another issue that is problematic – there is no right of the religious not to be offended, simply because what’s being said is distasteful.

These are serious challenges to claims of ways of knowing things, and religious claims about what is known and how it is known do not stand up to scrutiny. The fact that you genuinely believe what you do does not make it any more viable, and Dennett is under no obligation to pull his punches when criticising ways of thinking that bamboozle so many people.

There are two topics covered seriously.

One, treated second, is the issue of religious language applied to the explanation of religious belief that has been adapting to criticism of literal meaning for centuries. He clearly shows up some of the flaws in the religious language that is used. he bases much of this on his understanding of philosophy, linguistics, psychology and the study of the mind, and the ideas are consistent with those of many leaders in those fields.

The other is the study that is underway to look into the effect of this religious language. In this particular case it’s about how language is used in situations: where clergy struggle with the disparity in types of belief; where there is a wide range of literal to metaphorical meaning, from traditional fundamental theism to near or actual atheism; where clergy have to deal with these conflicts in their own minds and conscience.

I’m sorry you find much of Dennett’s video so distasteful, but I think the arguments are fair, even if you don’t like the presentation.


Atheist Label

Atheists generally accept we can’t prove or disprove the existence of God – basically, given our contingency of knowledge we can’t really ‘prove’ anything without relying on premises that themselves aren’t proven.

The hypothesis that there is a God – some agent that we are not aware of, that might have created the universe, that might interact with us in some as yet unknown way – is a reasonable hypothesis. There’s just no evidence to support the hypothesis.

So, shouldn’t the term ‘agnostic’ be used instead?

Well, the total lack of evidence for the existence of God, and the more than adequate evidence for natural explanations for what is often attributed to God, leaves little room for supposing there is a God.

Similarly, we have no evidence for many other gods of old, or of the efficacy of astrology, homeopathy, etc.

So, to all intents and purposes the label ‘atheist’ fits better than that of ‘agnostic’, given that the latter label is usually reserved for those that suspect there might be a God, but who just remain less convinced than a theist.

This form of atheism is usually termed weak or implicit atheism.

There’s also strong or explicit atheism. This atheist explicitly denies the existence of gods. This is a strong claim, and should require supporting evidence. Sometimes an atheist may give the impression of being this type of atheist, when in fact they are not. If in doubt, ask.

Though Atheism ends in -ism, it isn’t referring to a specific doctrine, and so shouldn’t be confused with being a religion, a philosophy, or a belief system – though it could be part of any one of these. There might be a religion which doesn’t have any gods, and therefore might be an ‘atheist’ religion – though then one should ask why it’s being called a religion and not an ideology or some other appropriate name.

When I refer to myself as an atheist I usually mean that this is a point of view regarding gods – all gods, which is a conclusion reached as a consequence of my understanding of what we can and can’t know (see Contingency of Knowledge and Human Fallibility), and what evidence there is or isn’t to support the hypothesis that there is a God (or gods).

Update: Agnostic-Atheist. Interesting, but there still seems room for a plain old agnostic: someone who is interested, but is completely undecided.

Belief in Belief & Practical v Factual Realism

I seems to go unsaid by ‘believers’, most of the time, but occasionally on blogs it might be admitted to explicitly, that there might be no God. Or it might be said that it doesn’t matter if there is no God.

To some extent this is a step in the right direction. But I can’t help but feel it smacks of being ungenuine; there appears to be a dishonesty there, buried somewhere deep in the otherwise honest view that faith is good for us, even if it’s a faith in something that doesn’t exist. If faith developed by some evolutionary mechanism and had some purpose in the past, is it okay to go on believing now, even if you feel there’s nothing there, or if you feel it doesn’t matter if there’s something there of not?

Dan Dennett, in his AAI 2007, Good Reasons for “Believing” in God talk covers a number of reasons for believing, and addressed this particular notion.

He identifies a self-censorship by preachers, who wouldn’t dream of saying openly that God does not exist. Maybe some are more open in their true beliefs – certainly enough to say it on a blog, and for those this might turn out to be a brave move. Fessing up to this hidden truth is something Dennett concedes is courageous in his talk.

Dennett says the God of old, Yahweh, is like Mount Everest – it’s there for all to see and exists without question. But, he explains, God has been watered down, until it has become like low rolling hills – not quite so obvious. But in the minds of the modern theologian it resembles more of an insubstantial mist, a fog.

What follows is some of Dan’s talk. Towards the end Dennett includes words from David Sloan Wilson’s book, as if in debate. In what follows the two parts are identified by DD and DSW.

DD – Gradually, over the years, the concept of God is watered down. These personal revisions are passed on without notice. not just from preachers, but from parents talking to their children. Gradually, from what started out as a Mount Everest type concept of God, becomes a sort of amorphous cloudy mysterious concept that nobody really knows what it is. Mystery is itself elevated and considered to be wonderful. And we get the privatisation of the concepts – this is particularly true in the cases of the mega churches in this country [USA] where, “We don’t care what your concept of God is, just so long as you’re One With Jesus and you come to the church.” So they’re actually allowing to freelance and come up with your own concept of God. It doesn’t matter what concept of God you have, “[whisper] because nobody believes it anyway.”

DD – So we get the almost comical confusion of today. It’s very important this happened [the change in what God is] imperceptably. If it was sped up it would just be hilarious; the revision piled on revision; and all in one direction.


DD – Here’s a quote:

“It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us”

DD – Now, that’s a wonderful joke by Peter De Vries in his hilarious novel The Mackerel Plaza, back in 1958. But…

“God is so great that the greatness precludes existence.” – Raimon Panikkar in The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha (1989)

DD – That is not a joke. That is said in all po faced seriousness.


Dennett finally addresses one of the ways of treating this God that isn’t there, as a myth, as another form of reality. He tackles David Sloan Wilson’s account of ways of believing, form Wilson’s book, Darwin’s Cathedral, 2002, in which Wilson uses the terms:

Factual Realism and Practical Realism. He quotes from the book…

DSW – It’s true that many religious beliefs are false as literal descriptions of the world, but this merely forces us to recognise two forms of realism: a factual realism based on literal correspondence, and a practical realism based on behavioural adaptiveness. An atheist historian who understood the real life of Jesus but who’s own life was a mess as a result of his beliefs would be factually attached to and practically detached from reality.

DD – So he ought to believe a myth even at the expense of his factual knowledge in order to keep his life not a mess? That seems to be the implication.

DSW – Rationality is not the gold standard against which all other forms of thought are to be judged. Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged, along with all other forms of thought.

DD – If this were a philosophical audiance and it weren’t so late at night I’d take issue with that, but I just draw your attention to these passages.

DSW – It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective. If there is a trade off between the two forms of realism such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time.

DD – So he seems to be giving what he thinks of as an evolutionary endorsement for practical realism over factual realism.

DSW – Many intellectual traditions and scientific theories of the past decades have a similar silly and purpose driven quality once their cloak of factual plausability has been yanked away by the hand of time. If believing something for its desired consequences is a crime, then let those who are without guilt cast the first stone.

DD – I want to point out the fundamental difference betwee factual realism and practical realism is that the truth or faslity of factual realist theories is always an issue. Imagine if a priest were to say, “of course there really isn’t a God who listens to your prayers; that’s just a useful fiction, an over simplification.” No, even the Unitarians don’t just blurt out the fact that these may be useful fictions, since it’s quite apparent that their utility depends on their not being acknowledge to be fictions. In other words, practical realism as recommended by David Sloan Wilson is paternalistic and disingenuous.

DSW – It appears that factual knowledge is not always sufficient by itself to motivate adaptive bahaviour. AT time a symbolic beliefe system that departs from factual reality fairs better.

DD – At what? At motivating behaviour. Well, you know I think he’s right about that. Is this a recommendation that one should lie when it will lead to adaptive behaviour? Does Wilson recognise the implication of his position?

[Dennett shows a photo of the Bush Adminsitration team: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld]

DD – Let us consider, practical realism of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. In a chilling article several years ago by Ron Suskind, White House correspondent, we get the following quote, “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

DD – There’s practical realism for you. It seems to me that David Sloan Wilson hasn’t thought this through. He maybe though actually saying that we are confronted with a sort of tradgedy. It may be that our quest for scientific truth has somehow trapped us: It’s too late for practical reality, that was for bygone days, we’re stuck now with factual reality, which some times won’t motivate us. We just know too much. We can never again act honestly, and honestly follow the path of practical realism.

DD – I don’t believe it. But that might be the position that he holds. Well if so we will just have to do the best we can guided by our knowledge. We will have to set ‘practical’ realism aside; it’s too late for that. there’s no going back.

DD – But, I’m actually optimistic. here we see the Vatican [picture]. Twenty years ago If I had stood up and said in a few years the Soviet Union woill evaporate, it will not exist any more, people would have laughed. If I’d sai Aprteid will be gone in just hew years, people would have laughed. Sometimes institutions that seem to be massive and have tremendous inertia can just pop like a bubble. So, how do we know until we try? Maybe within our childrens’ lifetime the Vatican will become the European Museum of Roman Catholicism. And maybe mecca will become Disney’s Magic Kingdom of Allah. If you think that’s funny just bare in mind that the hagia Sofia in Istanbul started off as a church, then it was a mosque, and today it’s a museum.

Of course Dennett is seeing the possible consequences of the lying that is implicit in this position of holding to a fictional practical realism over a less comfortable factual realism. It’s no good simply saying that continuing to believe in belief, while knowing that the belief you’re believing in is false, is okay because if makes people feel good, or behave well. Those you incite to believe false beliefs have a habit of interpreting those beliefs for themselves.

So, no matter how stupifying the belief is, I don’t think it’s worth it in the end.

According to Dennett, “it’s quite apparent that their utility depends on their not being acknowledge to be fictions. In other words, practical realism … is paternalistic and disingenuous.”

It’s also dangerous.

God Speaks

In the previous post, Psychology of Belief, perhaps the most interesting of the videos is this one: Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Hallucinations.

One of the believers in the video said, “God speaks in a whole bunch of different ways”, and there’s the rub. For the believer who avoids inflicting some of the psychological influences on others, do they check to see if they’ve been influenced that way? I think this particular psychological effect is probably the trick that holds it all together, the self-affirmation, the self-reassurance, that all the other psyche effects are in fact valid, because we’ve experienced God speaking to us. But have we?

Being told to listen and God will speak can lead us to interpret that in any way that seems to fit – confirmation bias – and so maybe our own intense feelings are interpreted as God speaking. When we think of how our brains work, using what little we yet know, we have a mechanism that consists of neurons, chemicals and electrical impulses, and out of that come feelings, sub-conscious events, and conscious awareness and thoughts. The latest thinking is that the conscious thoughts we have are the outcome, the awareness that comes to the fore, of other events in the brain; so that conscious thoughts are post-event stories that we use to monitor what the brain is doing and to plan and feedback down to the sub-conscious and the motor areas. This is a mechanism that builds from birth and is something we take from granted as much as speaking – when in the full flow of free conversation we have no idea how the vague notions that we want to express are formed into grammatical words and syntactic sentences, it just happens.

Using this model it seems plausible that we could mistake rising awareness of feelings and sub-conscious thoughts as being from elsewhere. We have so many instances where thoughts just pop into our heads, and if we have the time to consider we sometimes wonder, where did that come from. We notice it most when we’re with someone and we’ve been trying to remember a name but can’t quite get it, so we forget the search, and sometime later up it pops, and we wonder, where did that come from? This particular type of event is so noticeable that we even comment to each other – if I suddenly say the name, ‘out of the blue’, the other person will ask, where did that come from?

Some pop ups have an obvious cause. If I’m thinking about a topic in full concentrations and something comes into my field of vision, or the phone rings, it’s clear that the interruption, the pop up, has an external source. If I suddenly get an itch, or a stomach ache, I know the noticeable has come from my body. But how do we judge were subconscious thoughts and feelings come from. The sudden intense rush of inspiration or insight or overwhelming awe or a divine intervention such as words from God, I think, are all events that occur in the brain through the stimulation of intense thought, the power of stress, or any number neurological stimulations.

That the brain is capable of intense feelings from neurological events is indisputable – that is how the brain works after all. But to put it in context we can think of the images of brain seizures, such as epilepsy, as an extreme case of brain event that is out of control. I’m not say that clinically these inspirational events are the same in any way – I don’t know the neurophysiology of what’s happening – but as an extreme model it seems plausible. The fact that epilepsy has been speculated to be the cause of many recorded events in history is an indication of the similarity, whether it be possession by demons, appearances of visions or words from God.

This video is one in a series on epilepsy. Though this series is focusing on the clinical condition of epilepsy it does give some insight into how the brain can have extreme events; and it’s something like this I’m speculation could be the mode of operation of inspiring brain events – as opposed to real words from God or possession by demons. Which seems more likely? Video #1 is also of interest in this context.

Having a feeling that we are in touch with God, or that we experience God does have a possible neurobiological explanation. There’s the notion of the ‘God module’ in the brain. I missed this Horizon programme. I don’t know to what extent Dr Daniel Giang, neurologist and member of the church, is right in his medical opinion, or to what extent he has confirmation bias. The important point is not that is a module that is specifically for seeing or hearing or experiencing God, but that it is one area of the brain that has several functions, and one apparent effect, possibly a side effect, is that it causes or interprets brain effects as divinely inspired and generally cause the subject to believe in the divine.

The brain has the ability to convince itself of something, even when on another level the subject knows intellectually that his own brain is mistaken. This is a well know example of a woman experiencing a man behind her. Other direct brain stimulations have been recorded as causing familiar songs to be hear in the brain, even though the subject knows there is no music playing. And in another case it has been possible to cause out of body experiences. Out of body experiences can also be induced with VR.

Also, to figure out whether a divine event is real, consider: are you measuring the misses as well as the hits? Or is a cognitive bias persuading you you’re hearing God speak, when it’s your own internal experiences, of yourself. Watch for the auditory illusion towards the end – “You can’t miss it when I tell you what’s there.” To what extent are interpretations of inner messages influenced by religious priming, so that just a ‘feeling’ can be interepreted as divine?

Hearing God speak, either as an auditory signal in the audio cortex, or as a deep emotional experience, doesn’t seem to need divine intervention – the brain can do this all by itself, and convince the subject that it is a divine intervention. If the subject is primed for this it might even be inevitable that the subject is convinced.

Psychology of Belief

I’ve been discussing the relative merits of a scientific world view versus faith, with Lesley over on her blog. To clarify my view, basically how I get to my world view, I’ve added a couple of posts on this blog:

Contingency of Knowledge – How I get started, about what I can know.

Human Fallibility – Why we have to be careful about what we conclude.

Lesley has responded today with this post on Human Fallibility.

The distinction I would make, between our two positions, is as follows.

What Lesley is describing are the effects of actually believing, some of which are good, but others bad. The problem is that choosing to believe on faith leaves people open to persuasion or even indoctrination, and the way that goes, good or bad, seems to be the luck of the draw. If it goes the wrong way then faith can be used to justify awful behaviours.

The other side of the distinction between religion and a scientific approach is that the critical thinking that is promoted on the science side encourages self-analysis to an extent that faith doesn’t – some Christians being exceptions rather than the rule.

As a result of this, another bad effect of faith is that it provides justification for avoiding the effort to think too much. This can be carried over to other areas of human interaction, where it’s easy to let a view on marriage, sex, law, education, or politics, be so guided by one’s religion that it’s natural to just decide on the basis of what your own religion or you local or personal spiritual leader says. But this is often disguised by the fact that some critical thinking does go on, but only within the framework of the faith – the faith trumps reason.

Further, though each religion may recognise the existence of other religions it tends not to scrutinise them too publicly, too critically, particularly in a multi-cultural society like ours, because, I think, that there is genuine apprehension about exposing it’s own inconsistencies. This leads to an odd form of cultural relativism within religions that is somewhat like the left wing secular cultural relativism – where for the latter, you say anything goes, and for the former, you keep quiet about uncomfortable differences because of the uncomfortable similarities. We end up with daft compromises, like Rowan Williams on Sharia, in order to maintains one’s own privilege.

Here is a guide that demonstrates potential problems with thinking processes, with particular reference to belief in God. It’s a little bit geeky, but if you can get through it, it should shed light on what I think is wrong with religious thinking.

Psychology of Belief, Part 1: Informational Influence

Psychology of Belief, Part 2: Insufficient Justification

Psychology of Belief, Part 3: Confirmation Bias

Psychology of Belief, Part 4: Misinformation Effect

Psychology of Belief, Part 5: Compliance Techniques

Psychology of Belief, Part 6: Hallucinations

And, here’s another quick guide.

Top 25 Creationist Fallacies

Like all theories based on psychological research there are often controversies and new research results, but generally these modes of influence on thinking are well recognised, and identifiable in much religious discourse. Some of the above are also associated with logical fallacies in reasoning.

Of course this requirement for critical thinking applies to our side of the debate too. We too are human and not immune to error, and have to listen to criticism fairly.

Human Fallibility

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

From my previous post, on the contingency of knowledge, I’ve arrived at the point where our working model is that we think with our minds and we have senses to sense the natural world.

But on closer examination, by our minds, these senses appear to be fallible, so we concoct methods for gaining confidence in particular sense experiences. On even closer examination we discover that our reasoning and other cognitive faculties can also be fallible, so we take steps to account for that observation too. So all we can do is construct experience and look for multiple ways of confirming what we experience to gain confidence in it, to give credibility to it, to compensate for the fallibilities. When we do this rigorously we call this science. Science gives us the best and most reliable explanation of our cognitive and sensory experiences, accounting for and accommodating for our fallibilities the best it can.

Note that this is an entirely inductive experience, from the particular to the general. It is true that induction lies on top of no firm and absolute foundation. An inductive argument indicates some degree of support for the conclusion but does not ensure its truth. So, just to make it clear, none of this is offered as a proof! Of anything.

For any of the detail along the way we might use deductive reasoning, which is often thought to be more thorough than induction, more concrete. This does not mean that deduction is always the better choice. Deduction is fine if you construct a valid argument; and if you have true premises then you have yourself a ‘sound’ argument, the most sure argument there is. But it’s an illusion to think you can have a sound deductive argument at the limits of philosophy, in metaphysics – you can never be sure your premises are true! Why? Because all we have are our thoughts and our senses – we have no prior premises and arguments upon which to build our starting premises. So, if someone tells you they have a proof that, say, God exists, it’s baloney, because it always relies on presupposition, and the presupposition can’t be guaranteed to be true. If someone wants to offer you ‘evidence’ for God, that’s a different matter and should be treated seriously.

We are fallible human beings. The very best we can do is accumulate data, examples, lots of them, and compare them and subject them to any tests we can. We create hypotheses, of which Richard Feynman said they could just as well be guesses. Any old random guess won’t usually do – we could be here forever checking every possible hypothesis – something some theists think atheist are claiming (and what Pirsig mistakenly thought was a problem, in ZAMM – more of that in another post). Of course we base hypotheses on prior experience that appears to work. This is induction and science in action.

Science concludes (this means best explanation so far, not we’re absolutely certain) that according to our senses and reasoning there is a physical world out there. It gets a bit quirky sometimes – e.g. quantum physics – but so far nothing has been found to refute this tentative conclusion. I mean, really, nothing! You have to consider what it would mean to refute this. You would have to find something that isn’t physical. This is a tall order. Before sub-atomic particles were figured out the world was still physical. Discovering the sub-atomic particles didn’t introduce some magic into the universe – it was simply that we discovered something we didn’t know was there before, but is still considered part of the physical universe.

This is what will happen with any ‘paranormal’ effect or ‘energy’ that might exist. If it exists, then when it is found, that is when there is evidence of it, then it too will become a part of our physical description of the universe. The reason the paranormal is ridiculed so much isn’t because we know it to be false absolutely, it’s that fantastic claims have been made, but no evidence has been found to support them.

Astrology? No evidence. And further more, many of these ‘crank’ pseudo-sciences, are actually shown not to fit with scientific ideas that have much more support. The moon clearly has an immediate impact on our lives, with the tides; and has influenced us over a long evolutionary period. The other planets contribute to the stability of the solar system, and provide attractors for debris that might otherwise come our way. A supernova going off too close would have a significant impact too. Some cosmic events could wipe out life on our planet. But the suggestion that the particular arrangement of planets and stars at the time of our birth has some impact on the formation of our individual character? No only is it a dumb idea, but we now know of many more personal localised biological, psychological and sociological influences that are involved in the formation of our character. Astrology is a good representation of how bad ‘mystical’ nonsense can be – it doesn’t even rate as pseudo-science.

Evidence is the route to discovery and the support and maintenance of ideas and theories and facts. No evidence? Then it might as well not exist.

Not, you note, that it doesn’t exist! Science does not have to assert that anything in particular does not exist. It only says to what extent there is evidence to support an idea or the existence of something.

In everyday life, if we can’t see it, taste it, feel it, etc., then we might as well act as if it doesn’t exist, even if it does, for how can we tell the difference. We can happily go about our daily lives as if the speed of light does not have a limit, because in our daily lives we never reach that limit, and where it does impact on our lives, we are usually ignorant of it. Many cities around the world are built as if earthquakes don’t exist, because in those regions they rarely experience any of significance – and yet on a larger scale, for thos eliving in safe zones, we not only know they exist but we consciously participate in relief for those that suffer from them.

The extent to which reality affects us has some influence over how much we live as if some aspect of relaity exists or not. So, what about God?

We can ignore God as an entity because whether he exists or not makes no apparent difference. And even based on reason alone, so many varieties of teleological entities can be dreamed up, the limited theisms of the religious don’t really cover the bases they are trying to protect. And as for actual effects, … prayer does nothing to the event being prayed for, and has only psychological effects on believers. This means that despite the fact that theists can’t prove God exists and atheists can’t disprove it, it’s irrelevant, because there is no evidence, and that’s sufficient. We can act as if God does not exist because there is no evidence that such an entity does exist.

Many theists realise this and no longer require the existence of God as an entity ‘out there’ – See Rob Bell (h/t Lesley’s Blog). But that doesn’t mean theists have dealt with the problem of human fallibility in relation to faith. I’ll get to that in another post.

Of course, those people that believe God exists do themselves exist, and they do have an impact on the reality of the rest of us, which is a bit of a nuisance at times.

Contingency of Knowledge

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

I’m an atheist who is an atheist as a consequence of where science leads me – my atheism is a working conclusion rather than a presupposition, and certainly not a faith. I’m occasionally asked how I get to that point, so this is where it starts.

I like to take the track credited to Descartes and his Cogito[1] – I think therefore I am; or, if I’m thinking I can only conclude that something is doing the thinking, and that something I’ll call ‘me’. I’m not claiming this as a proof that I exist, but I am saying that it is the only evidence available to me that I exist. Feel free to criticise this; but it would be helpful if you could provide an alternative that is as all invasive as the experience that I am having of thinking.

I’m not sure what it would mean, what the consequences would be, if I were to say I am thinking but it’s not me, it’s something else thinking these thoughts, or, that my thoughts are an illusion (but what is it that is having the illusion of thinking), or that there is no thinking going on full stop.

So, based on this thinking experience, I accept the experience that is ‘thinking’, i.e. I think. I’ve had some people tell me this is my presupposition, but I don’t think it is, I think it’s a direct experience that I can’t refute.

Next I notice some senses, some apparent external inputs from some apparent external world – I see objects and people, I hear them, they appear to respond when I talk to them. Is this a phantom world created by my mind? Is there only thinking? This solipsism is a distinct possibility, I can’t deny it. Trouble is I can’t for the life of me tell the difference between the solipsism of imagined senses and real actual senses. Since that’s the case I’ll continue from here by choosing the arbitrary path – that my senses are real inputs from the external world, external to my thoughts. It’s important to realise that this is an arbitrary choice because I can’t tell the difference, I can’t refute solipsism.

Form there, through these senses, imaginary or real, I accept the discovery of other people who appear, according to my senses, to have the same experiences – at least that’s what they tell me. Not being able to refute any of this my basic working model, my working philosophy, is that we all exist and interact as our senses show us and our cognition (mind) understands us. This experienced world is the one we know as the physical world, or natural world, that applies to all of us.

At this point we can’t say to what extent our mind and senses report on the real, actual, universal, ultimate reality (or whatever you want to call it) that’s out there. We can’t even be sure there is such a thing. So note again the contingency of our position: we only think that we have a mind, and with this thinking mind we think that we have senses, but can’t be certain, and if we do have senses we think that they show us something of reality, but we’re not sure, and we don’t even know if this reality exists. But despite how contingent, how flaky and inadequate this position is that we’re in, it’s all we’ve got!

Next, I want to cover how humans deal with thinking about stuff in the light of these limitations: Human Fallibility.

[1] Cogito – Note I don’t consider too many of the options that Descartes does, because I can’t figure out what to do with them. And since nobody else takes us any further than this I am left to take from it what I’ve stated above.